The Grittiness and Challenge of Zadie Smith's NW

Charlie Kennedy

NW CoverZadie Smith, if you hadn’t already noticed, has built up something of a reputation. The young British novelist, essayist and short story writer carries weight with her (now household) name, and a whole lot of credentials to boot. Smith was awarded the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Guardian First Book Award, placed on the New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year list, and a recipient the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. She was also nominated for the Man Booker Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. In 2003, Smith was included on Granta's list of 20 best young authors.

So as her fourth novel, NW, landed in my lap I opened the first page with baited breath, and it appears much of national and international press has had the same reaction to the release of the title. After all, it is Smith’s first novel in seven years; her debut novel, White Teeth, was met with rapturous approval upon publication in 2000 (when Smith was just 24), and wide comparisons placing Smith next to the likes of Charles Dickens and John Irving. It’s quite the pedestal to balance on. If there’s one thing to be said about Smith, however, it’s perhaps that, with four novels now under her belt, she’s fine-tuned a voice that is unmistakably her own. Her voice and her brave attitude toward experimentation, however, have been met with mixed reviews. But it is the grittiness and challenging attitude of her prose style(s) that make NW such a delight to read, if you’ll stay for the journey Smith takes you on.

NW is the postcode for North West London, in and around Caldwell where Smith sets her characters in motion, focusing on the entwinement of lives of Leah (the Hanswell family, who have appeared in a number of Smith’s short stories, return), Natalie – a name change from Keisha as the character shifts away from her council estate upbringing – and Felix. Time is very much a key fixture of the story for each of the characters lives, and it’s introduced early on in Leah’s interior monologue:

“What is the fear? It is something to do with death and time and age. Simply: I am eighteen in my mind I am eighteen and if I do nothing if I stand still nothing will change I will be eighteen always. For always. Time will stop. I’ll never die.”

Leah is married to Michel, a mixed-race man who wants for them to have children when she has no desire to have children and so continues to take birth control without his knowledge. Leah looks back on her life with confusion – disillusioned by the life she now leads, to the one she perhaps thought she should have. She looks dejectedly at her childhood friend Natalie’s life (there’s something in perception and perspective that Smith so sharply grasps, how life looks from the outside, looking in). Natalie seems to have escaped her council estate life – she’s now a barrister, married to a beautiful man, with two equally beautiful children. Yet Natalie looks back at her own life with wonder and questioning – feeling she stumbled into the world she now lives in by mistake. Now, she tries to grasp at time, to rescue, redeem, to feel, yet fights a losing battle. Felix is looking for a clean break, time to start over – to leave the drinks and drugs behind and start afresh, wipe the lowly NW classification from his person. For all three, it’s a story of struggle, of weighted dreams doused by the reality of the city. It’s about the diversity not just of race, but worlds, all meshed together in one vibrant, unforgiving city. The characters struggle to fit into the world that has been laid out for them, not necessarily the one that they had planned.

Smith separates the book into five parts: Visitation, Guest, Host, Crossing and Visitation. Within these sections worlds and lives separate and cross invisible boundaries – quite literally for Leah in Visitation, when a girl comes to her door and scams her out of money. Each of the character’s distinctly different lives interfold; Leah and Natalie’s lives are connected through friendship, certainly, but Felix is nothing but a news story on the TV set to Leah: he winds up dead at the end of the Leah’s section of the book, and in Guest we’re introduced to his life in the run up to the random act of street gun crime. Natalie takes her turn in the limelight and point of view in Host, and the lives of all cleverly merge in Crossing and the final Visitation. Smith shines at effectively shifting gear in point of view to emphasize a character telling their story. In Visitation, the reader feels and understands the disdain for Natalie, the resentment that Leah feels, for the seemingly easy life that the other half – the other side of the field – that Natalie has joined. But in Host, the reader is offered the other side of the coin and one can clearly see the shift in perception: both sides of the story, both struggles are skillfully told, keeping the reader on board with each.

The first 109 pages – Leah’s section – certainly have to work hard to get things off the ground in NW. It’s not only a case of setting up the dynamics of the story, but in Smith’s case, setting up the reader with some clear rules on how to read the book – rules that are then broken and bent for the next section, and the next. It is in these first 109 pages that Smith decides to experiment most. Quotations are swapped from en-dashes, and speech is condensed to a smaller font. It’s also capitalized, interrupted, dispersed across the page. Smith writes of an apple tree, and the text illustrates the image. We’re given the route, as Google Maps would lay it out for us. The number 37 – an important number to the characters (it’s the bus number that travels to Willesdon; it’s a house number on the street; it’s the number that a girl Leah once loved believes is magical) replaces the chronological chapter count, making random appearances throughout Leah’s section. The experimentation – a shaky crossing into postmodern writing that may cause some readers discomfort – seems to calm a little and find its footing throughout the rest of the book. There are times where including an online chat conversation between Leah and Natalie works brilliantly, the “chat” dialogue entertaining and realistic, and the decision to write Natalie’s section (Host) through short, ordered chapters – past tense rather than present – doesn’t push the reader farther out of reach or understanding for Natalie. Her character renders a great likeability with each anecdote. In Felix’s section the chapters are headed as postcodes rather than numerically, as he moves through the city.

As someone from England I am certainly curious to question whether the English colloquialisms – the London slang particularly – is jarring, or confusing (or just plain irritating, if you’ve no taste for “blud” or “playa”) to those not familiar with the UK. There are certainly times where the intimacies of a language will surely wash over, go unnoticed, or merely confuse. Smith incorporates lines from childhood songs, references popular retail advertising slogans, uses terminology that unless you happen to be familiar with, will perhaps take you out of the intimate world Smith creates. Smith does a fantastic job of rendering sensory details – from landmarks to mass retail giants, dialect, sounds, sights – into her prose in an Andy-Warhol-like sense – iconizing and making caricatures of the unmistakably English objects. It is perhaps the only time I have found the rough London slang to feel lyrical and poetic:

“(…) When you been walking in my shoes? What do you know about living the way I live, coming up the way I came up? Sit on your bench judging me. Arksing me about “who are dem girls?” Keep your head in your own business, love. You and your fucking lezza friend. Bring her here I’ll tell her too. “You was so good at football, everybody loved you.” What good’s that to me? And you go home to your green and your life and where’s my green and my life? Sit on your bench. Talking out your neck about me. “How does it feel to be a problem?” What do you know about it? What do you know about me? Nothing. Who ar you, to chat to me? Nobody. No-one.”

Perhaps what’s so refreshing about such lines, and about the way Smith paints the landscape and characters in NW is that it’s believable. Quite simply, it’s real. The London tone is unmistakable. The diversity of London is accurate, the reality of council estate life observant.

Smith’s prose is witty and her intellect impressive. There are times when one questions the author’s intent and moments where the narrator slips in and out and takes the reader out of the moment, and for those paying close attention, there are a few factual slips up – such as when Leah pays for an abortion with a credit card from her student days so her husband won’t find out.

This is perhaps Smith’s most experimental work of fiction, and while the urge to keep pushing the boundaries on fiction is nothing new, this nudge towards postmodern doesn’t detract from one of the most important qualities in a successful novel: a well crafted, unique story. NW is captivating in its humane, profound, dark and playful plot, aided by heroically sad characters, laced with sharp, achingly funny and morose dialogue, all moulded around a very vivid locale. Smith continues to hold on tight to her pedestal position.

By Zadie Smith
The Penguin Press, 2012
ISBN 978-159420-397-8



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